Tag Archives: leaders

Better leaders are willing to be led

Legate Andrew Abela spent his first week as dean of Catholic University’s Busch School of Business asking each of the school’s senior staff questions and listening carefully to the answers.

He then called everyone together to share what he had learned and to set priorities for the school.

“Collective Ambition”

In another era, someone like Abela might have seized command and informed the staff of the direction the school would be taking. But as a leader in 2019, he employed what’s known as “collective ambition,” a team-oriented process for determining the purpose of an organization. “You enlist the aid of the decisionmakers,” said Harvey Seegers, associate dean for administration at the Busch School, “to put together a very cogent explanation of what the mission of the organization is and what values you cherish as you pursue its objectives.”

For much of the 20th century, Seegers said, most organizations were run like the military in a command-and-control style in which the person at the top charged those under him with accomplishing certain tasks and goals.

“Enlightened management in the 21st century is more about bottoms-up leadership, where you enlist everybody in the organization to help define what the mission is and the means of accomplishing the mission,” Seegers said. “In many ways it is very similar to the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social tradition – placing the responsibility at the lowest level qualified to do it.”

Balancing the top-heavy company

Seegers began to experience this shift in management style when he worked at General Electric in the 1990s under former CEO Jack Welch, who had introduced what he called “boundarylessness” in the 1980s. “He was a big believer in subsidiarity because he was constantly challenging the officers in the company to get the work to the lowest level you could do it.” Seegers said by pushing work down the organization, Welch was able to turn a top-heavy company into a more balanced one. As a result, the company’s stock price skyrocketed and what Welch was doing drew the attention of other CEOs and business publications. Even the Harvard Business School picked up on his method.

Its inclusion in Catholic social tradition aside, Seegers said, subsidiarity is a good management technique because it drives productivity. And, he added, employing it doesn’t mean a leader isn’t strong. “The best leaders lead through persuasion and influence rather than command and control.” They can do this because they have the self-confidence to acknowledge they don’t know everything, but also possess the skill set to discover what they need to know by asking the right questions of others. “My experience has been that the very best business leaders govern, if you will, and lead by asking the right questions.”

Asking the right questions, the best way

Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, considers asking good questions so important that he has devoted an entire book – Questions Are the Answer – to the topic. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he said understanding what kinds of queries spark creative thinking is key. “There are lots of questions you can ask,” he wrote. “But only the best really knock down barriers to creative thinking and channel energy down new, more productive pathways.” He said such questions reframe the problem, intrigue the imagination, invite others’ thinking, open space for different answers, and are not posed in a way that asserts position power.

Seegers said asking the right questions comes naturally to some people, but most need training and experience to do it properly. “People don’t do it because they don’t know how to do it, but the other element is that people who don’t do it sometimes have a deep-seated insecurity that it will be a sign of weakness if they ask somebody.

It’s kind of ironic: people who ask these questions and know how to do it are really reflecting strength.”

Asking good questions also is one of the hallmarks of a servant leader, a concept credited to Robert Greenleaf, who developed his ideas while working in management for AT&T and then published them in an essay in 1970. “The best servant leader asks the most provocative questions to help discover the truth,” said Patricia Falotico, CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Servant leadership – non-coercive but very strong

When applied to business, servant leadership is about understanding and meeting the needs of others so they can fulfill their highest potential and aspirations, Falotico said. “It’s not a tower-over, coercive leadership model. It is a very focused, others-centered leadership style. The leader is all about providing the resources necessary for teammates to thrive.” Ultimately, Falotico said, servant leadership helps organizations thrive and contribute to a better world.

As someone who grew up in a command-and-control environment, Falotico became a convert to servant leadership when she began to recognize that telling people “this is the way we’re going to do it” was not necessarily helping them to be their best. “I shifted into servant leadership without even knowing that that was what it was called.” Early in her career, she said, she was becoming frustrated with the people she was leading as a first-line manager in a corporate setting. Her husband challenged her to stop thinking about getting the job done and whether it matched how she would have done it and instead to start helping those under her to do the job their way.

Though sometimes mistakenly associated with weakness, the servant leadership model actually requires great strength because more is required of the leader, Falotico said. “It takes a lot more work to ensure that you are that you are putting the interests of others ahead of your own and . . . achieving the outcomes you need. It takes persistence, courage, the ability to have people become more accountable, the need to inspire others, the need to get them to feel a sense of shared ownership. There is nothing soft about it. What it isn’t is coercive. In a world where we associate strength with coercion, servant leaders are not coercive, but are very strong.”

Not everybody’s best friend

Falotico said someone who thinks of a servant leader as being everybody’s best friend is probably not going to want to embrace the concept. However, she continued, “Quite honestly, not all servant leaders are everybody’s best friend. We push, we challenge, we hold the bar high. The difference is we will help you get to that bar. We’re all about getting great results and building really powerful relationships with others.”

Although not a purely Catholic idea, servant leadership is nonetheless practiced by many Catholics who live out its principles in their business lives, Falotico said.

Seegers said servant leadership is taught at the Busch School, particularly in the classes of Andreas Widmer, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and author of The Pope and the CEO. Widmer’s book shares the leadership lessons he learned while serving as a Swiss Guard protecting Pope John Paul II and refined in his own business career. “He teaches servant leadership from day one and uses the word,” Seegers said.

He said he also has seen servant leadership at work in Abela’s challenge to the school’s leadership team to lead with truth and charity. “Truth means we don’t want to lull ourselves into believing everything is perfect and we’re constantly looking for the truth, but the charity part is to do it with magnanimity. You don’t go searching for the truth like an army soldier. You pursue it with grace and dignity and in a way that’s respectful of the other person. It’s a great way to think about servant leadership.”

JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer

Business and faith: A match made in heaven?

I recently served on A discussion panel where Catholic business leaders explored the degree of compatibility between faith and business practices, including corporate charitable giving. A distinct mix of opinions was expressed. In an era when it cannot be agreed that 2 + 2 = 4, can business people be as divided as the rest of the country? Or perceive that faith presents different dictates to different people? Is there no common denominator?

Probably not, but let’s try two ideas on for size.

My dad, a businessman and one of the most charitable people I’ve known, always spoke of “helping the least of our brethren.” Judging from our mailbox at home while growing up, it seemed that every mission around the world depended on his good will.

Try one more. “Children are a gift from God,” said Mother Teresa, whom my wife and I met many years ago while volunteering at Caligat, her “Home for the Destitute Dying” in Calcutta. She was remarkable in her approachability, energy, and good humor.

Perhaps not all readers would agree with my dad and Mother Teresa, though it’s hard to argue with the Gospels and a saint. Thus, in exploring the alignment between business and faith, it might be instructive to ask business people to assess their actions, processes, and charitable commitments through the lens of how well they are serving the least of our brethren, including children.

Looking through this lens, I would submit that in the sea of all the good things that businesses and their people do, there are two opportunities that are overlooked: improving education and addressing fatherlessness.

Improving education has many definitions. Many businesses donate books, provide reading tutors, and teach STEM classes. All good. But to me, real improvement will rely on market forces – yes, good ol’ competition – when poor kids and their parents are given the freedom to select from a menu of public, private, religious, cyber, and home educational options that fit their circumstances and preferences. But the forces of the public school monopoly are strong, vocal, and well funded. Some school choice advocates have declared this the civil rights issue of our day. But where are voices of business leaders, whose instincts I have to believe, despite divisions, lean toward free markets? I don’t hear them.

Nor do I hear business leaders weighing in on fatherlessness despite nearly 20 million kids in the U.S. living without their dads. Most are being raised by single mothers, nearly 50 percent of whom live in poverty. Too many families, the key building blocks of society, are shattered. Too many kids live desperate lives marked by loneliness, neglect, gangs, drugs, crime, pregnancy, hopelessness, failure in school, and lack of love. In the mid-1960s, the vast majority of children lived with both parents. To be sure, some were poor and faced enormous challenges.

But with two parents in their corner, they at least had the fighting chance that too many kids today lack. What happened? We could debate the causes forever. But sadly, and with tragic consequences, our culture seems to have concluded that dads are obsolete and unnecessary, to be tossed onto some 21st-century trash heap with other anachronisms. And so too many of our kids suffer without the love, hard work, protection, discipline, and guidance of their fathers – while we delude ourselves that mothers can do it all.

What can businesses do? Plenty. There are numerous agencies, non-profits, private groups, and individuals doing heroic work both to offer kids a better education and rebuild fatherhood. In supporting any of these initiatives with their drive, creativity, and intelligence, business leaders can help many of the least of our brethren while witnessing to what our faith prescribes.

BILL MCCUSKER is Founder & CEO of Fathers & Families, Inc., whose mission is improving the lives of children, mothers, and families by building awareness of the importance of fathers, and by helping fathers be better fathers. He is recently retired from the business world where he spent 36 years in executive and marketing leadership roles. www.fathersfamilies.com.